Bonnie is my only sibling, older than me by eight years. Yet I have always felt like the big sister, because my IQ is normal, and hers hovers around 70. Anyone in the psychology or social work field knows what that means – she’s qualified for the MR Waiver. Use your imagination to figure out what “MR” stands for. These days it’s politically incorrect to call someone “retarded,” though all it means, really, is “slow.”
Yet Bonnie is rarely at half tempo. She may have trouble getting around these days, despite the spiffy new walker I bought her at Mercy’s Home Care Store, but her mind is as sharp as ever. If this sounds contradictory, then you’ve never known a mentally handicapped person. They can be silly, full of jokes, full of questions. Whenever we go to see her, Bonnie has a list of questions typed up for us. Yes, typed. Now that her tremor gets the best of her, she prefers to type out notes, a skill she learned in high school.
Her questions range all over the place, from “What is Andromeda?” to the phonetically sounded out “anna/fe/lec/tic shock.” An avid TV watcher, she demands answers to new words and subjects. We try our best to answer.
One question, though, has been impossible to answer. “Where is Snowball?” she asks every time we visit. She has a storage unit, the place we stashed as much as we could of her belongings, that awful weekend when she was evicted from her apartment as the ice rained down in sharp sheets. Into the dumpster went the cat-pee stained pillows and loveseat and junk. To Goodwill went whatever we figured she would never use again, and into the storage unit whatever else would fit.
It is no exaggeration to say that half of that unit comprises stuffed animals. There are dogs and bears, swans and ducks, bunnies and elephants. She began collecting them early, and the collection grew, mainly because it was so easy to make her happy by buying another one. Over the years, as her apartments grew larger, so did her menagerie. We joked about how long it must take her to unload her bed every night for sleep – until the jokes became strained and her enjoyment of the animals began to seem much more like obsession.
You may have seen TV shows where the police come in and remove a mentally ill hoarder who cannot see that his or her home has become an invitation for disaster. Fires, toppling stacks of books, dangerous slips on slick magazines; people have died in conditions like this.
So it’s just as well that Bonnie’s last landlord got fed up, calling us in to remove her. Social Services made sure she found a new, better place assisted by 24-hour professional care. She still has her own room, which she tries to over-fill with magazine clippings and more stuffed animals but is prevented from turning into a firetrap. After all, she’s an adult, with her own checking account (somewhat monitored by me, her guardian and payee of her monthly Social Security Supplemental Income checks). Her aides and I try to dissuade her from investing in yet another koala bear or singing chicken, but stronger women than us have failed.
Every so often, I go through her storage unit, find something I think she might appreciate, and present it to her, hoping the joy of the surprise will outweigh the frustration of not being allowed to go through the unit herself.
But one day, she described Snowball, and asked me sweetly to please find her and bring her over. Snowball was, as described by Bonnie, a smallish white cat with a ruff around her neck crocheted by my sister herself. Snowball was alleged to have originally belonged to our mother, who died in 2000. So she’s no help. The way Bonnie likes to tell it, Snowball is the first stuffed animal of all, the one who got her started on her wonderful pastime. Were my mother still alive to hear this, she might rue the day she ever thought of bestowing Miss Snowball on her eldest child.
So I started looking. You have to understand – Bonnie’s storage unit, located in the northwest part of Davenport, is crammed to the gills with boxes and plastic tubs and paper bags of calendars and yarn balls, broken bed frames and homeless furniture. Some of it should go, but I’ve reached my limit of tossing out my sister’s belongings. Her budget can afford the storage fees, so her old white indoor skates and purple bowling ball and stacks of vinyl LPs can remain there forever, as far as I’m concerned. My conscience seems to require it.
It gives me great satisfaction when Bonnie describes some thing she is missing – a small blue lamp, a polka-dot umbrella, a wooden jewelry box still full of costume jewelry – and I am able to produce it for her. But Snowball? No such luck. I have brought over some half dozen white cats of various vintages, and struck out every time.
A friend suggests there never was a Snowball, that Bonnie dreamed her up as the ur-stuffed animal that got her habit started. By now, we’ve gone through every single box and bin and rescued every single white kitty cat. Still, no luck. But I try to keep Bonnie hopeful. Any time she asks, I say not, “We’ve looked everywhere!” but instead, “We’re still looking!” Because when you have so little of real value in this world, it sure would be nice to find at least one thing you’re really longing for.